Monday, 11 May 2009

Spore review

Ok, what can I say about Spore. As you've probably noted from my previous blog posts (if you have indeed been reading them) is that I didn't come away from playing Spore feeling entirely positive about it; that is not to say that it isn't without some sizable merit. Spore first appeared on most people's radars at EA 2006 with a functioning demo of the creature creator tool and a demonstration of the creature stage. At the time audiences were wowed by the incredible technology behind the creature creator and somewhat impressed by the mind boggling concept of a gaming world where every inhabitant has been created by another player. It was promised that the game would involve you journeying from a simple multi-cellular organism to a species of planet conquering cultural behemoths and experiencing everything in between. The sheer ambition behind Spore's concept is not something that is often encountered in games and is definitely worthy of respect. Unfortunately as is often the case with highly ambitious projects, there seems to be a great deal of dissonance between the ambition and the actual result.

I'm going to start off by reviewing my favourite part of the Spore experience, the creature creator. This is where Spore really shines. The Spore creature creator consists a number of simple to use tools which allow you to create almost anything that you can imagine; anything from giant walking penises (a few examples, there were hundreds of these things online less than an hour after the creature creators release. Draw your own conclusions as to what this says about humanity.) to Tie fighters, from Wall-E to Goatse. All of the tools within the editor are incredibly intuitive allowing for maximum freedom. There are a number of default spine arrangements for you to work from but these can all be altered to meet your own vision (however grotesque or delightful that happens to be). You start off by choosing how long you want the spine of your creation to be, shaping it into your desired design and then choosing the body mass around around each segment of the spine. Once you've chosen your basic framework you can start to chose your creatures limbs (that is assuming that you're not trying to re-create the pillow man) and other features from a fairly wide selection of preset designs using the editors easy to navigate menus (these range from aesthetic features to practical features such as claws and wings, most of which adding specific attributes to your species). Each of these bodily extremities can also be heavily modified in terms of size, extension, direction of projection and their position. When you're happy with your creatures overall design it's time to bring them to life; this is where the real magic happens. You will be amazed as your creature starts to move around the environment just as you would have expected it to, with only a few exceptions where the creature appears to clip into itself or limbs seem to spaz around in random directions (for the most part this is the result of bad design rather than problems with the program). The results that can be achieved with the editor are truly wondrous and are clearly the work of a number of genius programmers (either that or at some point a deal with the devil was made for the base algorithms). It is almost worth buying the creature creator by itself just to marvel at the joyous result of years of work. Unfortunately Spore is meant to be more than just an editor, it is also meant to be a game and this is where things start to go awry.
What was originally promised of Spore was an epic evolution sim where you gradually evolved from a simple bacterial Spore to a fully fledged technological race. Unfortunately Spore completely misses the mark with each section of the game feeling entirely arbitrary. There are five sections within the game, most of which blatantly ripping off other (some would say better, more fleshed out games):
  • The cell stage (flOw rip off)- a simple stage where you play as a bacterial creature who's aim is simple either survive as a herbivore, carnivore or omnivore by eating plants or smaller creatures and avoiding being eaten by bigger more dangerous creatures. As you progress through the stage your creature will gradually grow in size and will gain access to more body parts that will allow it to become better suited for survival. This stage is actually pretty fun, but is regretfully quite short lived (especially considering that this was many players favourite stage).
  • The creature stage- as you emerge from the ocean and out of the cell stage into the creature stage you find yourself with a few slightly more advanced objectives. Your creature now has a nest which acts as your creatures base. Within your base you will find a number of your own species with which you can interact with; either by recruiting them to follow on your travels or by mating with them to add new features to your species. This is where just how arbitrary the in game evolution is becomes really evident. At any point during this stage you can completely reimagine your creature rearranging its limbs and adding new features. I personally found this rather dispelling with it somewhat undoing the narrative of my species. Your overall objective remains largely the same to the cell stage with you having to source food and survive attacks from the giant penis monsters that roam the landscape. At this point you have to choose whether to make other players creatures your prey (the fun option), or whether to befriend them by dancing and singing for them (the lame option). Wiping out other species is quite fun for a while (roughly 30 minutes in my case) but is on reflection pretty shallow. The path of the herbivore however... I'm not sure that this even constitutes a game; if singing, dancing and collecting plants sounds like a good game to you please feel free to put me straight. It is pretty interesting interacting with other players creations, but it never feels like a challenge to plough through this stage.
  • The tribal stage (pathetic rip off of any given age of empires game)- this is where Spore starts to become really putridly bad. You are now tasked with controlling a small tribe of your species and are tasked with becoming the dominant species in a small area. This can either be achieved by warring with neighbouring tribes using rudimentary weapons (spears, fire staffs or bows. The depth to be found here is truly astonishing) or by converting them with the power of music. That's right you heard me, you take control of neighbouring tribes by playing instruments to them. While this may be Bob Geldof's idea of a wet dream, I am not impressed; this is lame... really really lame. Whichever way you choose to play through this stage the game play is horrendously shallow, requiring no tactical thought whatsoever. All you have to do in order to win is to have more guys than your neighbour; that is it. The whole interface during this stage is horrible also, especially the map that you use to navigate which for some reason works at some obscure angle (it's like they subscribe to the Escher school of map design). During this stage you can equip your creatures with a small number of different types of clothing and jewellery but there is very little customisation possible here. I can't think of anything good to say about this stage, it is completely abysmal and frankly barely deserves the title of "game". The only saving grace is that it's forgivingly short.
  • The civilisation stage (can you guess what it is yet)- another disappointing attempt at emulating a better game, the civilisation stage sees your species in the battle for global domination. It is assumed at this point that you are the dominating species on the planet and find yourself fighting against cities run by other members of your kind. Throughout this stage you are afforded a pleasing amount of customisation with every building, vehicle and turret being entirely of your own design. You even get to design your own national anthem with a music generator designed by the legendary Brian Eno. Once again however the game play is entirely too simplistic. The aim of this stage is to gain control of resources and of any cities which are not under your control. There are three ways of converting neighbouring cities; you have the option of conquering with violence, democracy or religious indoctrination. None of the above methods are nearly as interesting as they sound, relying on relatively base levels of implementation. Conquering with violence requires you to make use of three types of unit; aerial, ground and water in order to obliterate your enemy. To be quite frank I was left feeling a bit miffed at only being allowed three types of unit as it leaves any combat you engage in feeling little more than shallow. The democratic approach is similarly un-fleshy, with the options boiling down to "we have a common enemy, lets kill him together" and "will you be my friend if I give you some money". In order to indoctrinate your fellow cities you are required to post giant holographic images of your nations religious figurehead into the sky in order to spew religious vitriol. Does this sound boring? If so, that's probably because it is. Once again there is no apparent challenge present and worse still, our old friend the Escher map returns to disorient you in ways only previous achieved by copious amounts of alcohol. Again thankfully this stage is relatively short lived allowing you to move onto the Space stage without too much trouble.
  • The Space stage (I'm willing to bet that this is a ripoff of some space sim, but as I've not played any myself I'm going to moderate the accusational tone)- the final stage in the Spore universe sees you travelling through space in a ship of your own design, vying for galactic domination via a mixture of democracy and violence. It's hard for me to make any sort of full and balanced judgement in regards to this stage, because if I'm honest, I got bored and stopped playing fairly quickly after getting started. I would say that it did seem to be more in-depth than previous stages with your species engaging in interstellar democracy, planetary terraforming and fighting off aggressive species of aliens. Unfortunately in achieving this depth, they ironically managed to the make the whole experience entirely tedious. For some obscure reason most of your navigation is done using the mouse wheel, which is incredibly annoying, especially when you're required to move between systems at a high frequency. Why you can't just click where you want to go, I will never understand. That simple interface change would have made the whole experience 100% less patience busting. The sheer amount of exploration possible is very impressive, as every system you enter has planets to be explored, many of which harbouring species in varying stages of development. I personally found this stage boring, but it may well be your sort of thing depending on how much patience you have and what kind of game you normally enjoy.

Overall Spore comes across as a pretty schizophrenic experience with each stage feeling interesting but pretty unsubstantiated. I personally found the games presentation to be quite rough around the edges as well, with some fairly flagrant graphical flaws and sub par graphics at best. It also feels like the game really could have benefited from some sort of multiplayer element. The amount of fun in any of the stages would be exponiated if you brought in the ability to play them against other humans; apart from anything else the AI is relatively lackluster and is a bit of a walkover at the best of times. In my opinion they made the mistake of hyping this game too early. By doing so it seems likely that they created an unhelpful rush to get the game out of the door, when to be quite frank, it wasn't finished. In order for this title to deliver on its promises it needed another year in development at least (Yes I have picked that timescale out of thin air and no I probably don't actually know what I'm talking about; thanks for your input fictional pedant). Having being developed by Brian Eno the soundtrack never fails to impress with each stage of development being perfectly supplemented by the score. The editor tools are also pretty darn good and are worthy of great praise from all who use them. One feature of note that has created a great deal of controversy is the SecuROM DRM software which prevents you from installing your copy of Spore more than five times, essentially turning your game into an over priced rental. This wouldn't be so much of a problem if it weren't for the fact that you can lose installs by installing new components on your computer. Worse still is the fact that you are forced to contact EA in America to request more installs if you run out. However I'm only interested in reviewing the game, not the DRM software that comes attached.

In conclusion Spore is an interesting experiment. It's certainly not the genre defining masterpiece that it set out to be and to be honest in a few places I'm not sure it even qualifies as a game. Will Wright should know better than to release an unfinished product at this point in his career and he deserves a much larger critical scathing than he has received. It's certainly worth a look if you're a creative type and you're not particularly bothered about depth of game play. If like me however you are a traditionalist and expect challenge and depth of game play you should probably look elsewhere. Scores: Graphics-3/5
Sound- 4/5
Game play- 2.8/5
Editor- 4.6/5
Overall 3.5/5 (Note: not an average)

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